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Georgia’s rapprochement with NATO is a threat to Russia’s positions in the Caucasus: interview with Yuri Vazagov

Before the New Year, the Caucasian Geopolitical Club interviewed a number of experts about the results of the past year. Expert from IR Media Center, political analyst of South Ossetia newspaper Yuri Vazagov (Tskhinval) shared his views on the prospects of Russian-Georgiana and Ossetian-Georgian relations.

Could you, please, sum up the results of the past year for South Ossetia and the South Caucasus, in general? What was the most remarkable event to you?

For South Ossetia, the key result of the year was the parliamentary elections won by forces advocating the republic’s accession to Russia. As a result, we now have a more balanced internal political system. One more achievement was our efficiency in implementing the 2014 investment program.

For the South Caucasus, it was a year of growing confrontation between Russia and NATO. One of the consequences was repeated attempts to escalate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which might have ended badly were it not for Russia’s mediation. One of the most remarkable events was Georgia’s signing an association agreement with the EU and a package of documents to strengthen cooperation with NATO. No less important event was the conclusion of a new agreement between Russia and Abkhazia.

What effects have the processes in Russia and the world, particularly, the Middle East, had on the region?

Quite different effects. Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge has been turned into a kind of talent pool for the ISIL, with more and more people from the local Muslim community being recruited by that group. This is a serious challenge for the Caucasus as is the news about training of the so-called Syrian moderate opposition fighters in the territory of Georgia. The Georgian authorities keep refuting this information, but reliable sources say that this is true and that the Americans are forming such groups from Georgia-based Azerbaijanis.

All this is aggravating the general situation in the Caucasus and may cause additional instability should the existing conflicts be escalated.

What is your forecast for South Ossetia and the Caucasus for the new year?

The key task for South Ossetia in 2015 is to sign a new alliance and integration agreement with Russia as deeper security and social-economic integration with the Russians can help us to neutralize potential threats and challenges and will alleviate the consequences of the economic crisis.

The coming year will become a serious test for the region in view of NATO’s attempts to create an “arc of instability” all along the Russian borders. In this light, Russia and its Caucasian allies will have to be as one so as to prevent any escalations in the local conflict zones. The Middle East will also have a serious influence on the region as the United States and its allies are proving unable to stop the ISIL.

What do you think about the prospects of the Eurasian integration? Will Russia and South Ossetia be able to deepen their integration now that the world is facing a political-economic crisis?

The events in Ukraine and the renewed confrontation between the West and Russia are creating certain obstacles to the Eurasian integration, especially as the elites in most of the post-Soviet republics are not showing a clear attitude here. They are simply afraid that now that the US and its allies are putting the screws on Russia, they may also get in the firing line. The economic problems the Russians are facing now due to falling oil prices and continuing sanctions are also a big restraint to their integration plans. But if they win this geopolitical war, this process will get moving.

As far as the Russian-South Ossetian integration is concerned, the key stimulus here is not so much economy as the need to jointly respond to potential threats and challenges and the historical tradition to exist as one civilization. NATO’s expansion into the Caucasus and the processes developing in the Middle East are urging Russia and South Ossetia to more actively integrate in the military. Economics have a very small role here.

Can there be a breakthrough in Russian-Georgian, Georgian-Ossetian and Georgian-Abkhazian relations in 2015? If yes, then under what circumstances?

I think the “neither war, nor peace” situation will continue even though I don’t rule out a possibility of destabilization. On the other hand, the processes that took place in Georgia’s foreign policy in 2014 may well have a serious effect on Russia-Abkhazia-South Ossetia-Georgia relations in the coming years.

I, first of all, mean the signing of an association agreement with the EU and a substantive package of cooperation with NATO. The latter implies that there will be NATO military facilities in Georgia’s territory.

Georgia’s rapprochement with NATO is certainly a threat to Russia’s positions in the Caucasus. It means that the Russians will have to counteract, which will hardly be good for their relations with the Georgians.

Last year, Russia made it clear to Georgia that the new realities that appeared since 2008 can be a basis for rapprochement. The Russians reopened their market for the crisis-ridden Georgians and expected them to at least slow down their integration with the West.

But the past year has shown that Georgian Dream has no room for maneuver in its relations with the West. No sooner had Bidzina Ivanishvili come into power than the West appeared with a bunch of counterbalances so as to prevent any obstacles to Washington’s policy in the country. In opposition to Ivanishvili are now not only Mikheil Saakashvili’s National Movement but also the party of the former Defense Minister Irakly Alasania, and even some of the allies, like the Republican Party, are in controversy with him. So, if the Americans wish, they can easily ruin the fragile majority Georgian Dream still has in the parliament. This may result in mid-term elections and resigning Cabinet and consequently quite drastic political reshuffles with no revolutions.

Under such conditions, Ivanishvili’s supporters will not be able – even if they actually wish - to improve relations with Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, especially as Georgia keeps refusing to regard Abkhazia and South Ossetia as equal parties to possible peace talks. To me a breakthrough would be an agreement on nonuse of force and cancelled law on occupied territories, but with all the abovementioned factors in view, I don’t expect this to happen.

By Yana Amelina, Editor-in-Chief of EAD, Coordinating Secretary of the Caucasian Geopolitical Club

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